Yoga is a practice of cleansing ourselves body, mind, and spirit, every single day, so that we can show up in the world without reactivity, in our center, and coming from total love and joy. This is the type of enlightenment that we are working towards. – Seane Corn
If you are only working for your own benefit on your mat, you are not practicing yoga. You are doing Indian calisthenics. – Kelly Morris
My first official yoga class – I had done a bit of yoga at home previously – was October 14th, 2007. It was a Moderate class taught by a wonderful woman named Kirstii. My best friend had been badgering me for a few weeks to get me into a class there. “You’ll LOVE it,” she said over numerous emails. “I swear, we can start going to gentle classes and then the other ones once we get used to it. I swear you’ll love it.”
From the first class, I was completely hooked. I loved how it made me feel like I was back in the dance classes I loved as a kid, and how it made me feel completely calm at the end. I came home and decided that once a week, by hook or by crook, I would go to a yoga class. I wasn’t necessarily into it as a spiritual path, but it seemed like a great workout.
My last yoga class before I left for New York was February 18th, 2009. I didn’t return to the mat until the following year, when Connie, sensing I needed an outlet and something that would give me hope, recommended that I try applying for a desk job at our home studio. I would work for four hours a week checking in yoga people and cleaning up the studio, and in exchange I would get unlimited free yoga. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, and it completely changed my life. Three years later, I practice vinyasa yoga 3-4 days a week and have a consistent meditation practice.n
Obviously at this point, I look at yoga as much more than just a workout.
I cannot stress enough the positive effects that yoga has had on my entire life. I have some thoughts on yoga as a spiritual path that have come from a few years of seriously intense practice (with no plans to go into yoga teacher training…it’s goddamn expensive), and I thought I’d share them with you in case you were thinking about going into yoga but feeling intimidated or worried about it in any way.
Go to a studio first. I STRONGLY recommend going to a studio for a good deal of your practice if you can. Yoga teachers are there to help you with body adjustment, encouragement, and sometimes a temple massage if you’re lucky. My ‘home’ studio will always be Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester, CT, because it’s filled with regular, wonderful people doing yoga and it’s not intimidating at all. That being said, most teachers will tell you that a solid home practice is a true testament to how seriously you take your yoga. Currently I practice entirely at home because it saves me a heck of a lot of money (I am a poor, poor teacher in between masters and doctoral degrees, I spend money on my car and caffeine) and I am confident enough in the safety of my practice to take it to my home mat. I also have all of the necessary props – blocks, a strap, and a mat. Note: it took me legitimately 4+ years to get to the point that I felt like I could do a full vinyasa yoga class at home without killing myself, so seriously go to a studio first and take all of the classes/workshops you can. Trust me, if I could I’d go to more studio classes!
If you didn’t like a type of yoga class, go to another one. And another one. Go until you find a style that works. I’ve tried several different types of yoga and have come to the realization that my jam is lightly heated vinyasa with grounding elements. There are several types that I appreciate as a part of yoga but weren’t exactly my jam. For example, Ashtanga, while an incredible spiritual path for extremely disciplined types, just exacerbated my anxiety – which we have already discussed can be a problem for me. Plus, it made my controlling tendencies even more pronounced and I felt like a nasty Type-A jerk when I was doing it. On the contrary, the vinyasa practice inspires me to be spontaneous, relaxed, open, and receptive to the changes that life can throw at you. But I prefer a slower, more controlled flow in those sorts of classes; I do NOT like the type of vinyasa yoga that feels like you’re in a bootcamp on acid, but if that’s your flavor go for it.
You’ll start wanting to take care of yourself. I don’t like overexercising, eating shitty food all the time, or pushing myself too hard when I’m doing a consistent yoga practice. I don’t go more than three days without it in my life or else I get the impulse to do/say/eat bad things.
You’ll start wanting to eat healthy…ish. One of my teachers said “Whatever you drink or eat or think will show up on your mat the next day” and it is entirely correct. If I’ve been boozing or accidentally eating gluten, I turn into a bomb of awful on my mat. So yoga has inspired me to stick to my gluten free diet and stay away from a lot of meat/dairy products. I attempted to go fully vegan a few years ago and my body was not happy. Plus, it made my restrictive tendencies throw a damn party and the first rule in the 8-limbed path of yoga is ahimsa, the act of nonharming. It has to start with yourself. So if you feel that eating meat is treating yourself better, you go eat that meat. But maybe eat some broccoli with it?
Don’t worry if you can’t do the advanced poses. They aren’t the point of yoga. I’ve been practicing for six years and I am just NOW getting into the difficult poses, but some of the ones that require deep back bends, or deep opening in the hips, my body will simply not do. I used to be obese, and the pressure that extra weight created on my hips/back/knees have caused them to splay in ways that yoga can’t fix. I used to get incredibly frustrated that the really beautiful advanced poses would never be part of my practice. But after a few years I began to understand that the poses are really not the point of yoga. After all, if there’s no intention behind them aside from the aesthetic, you’re just doing another workout. The point of yoga is to better your life and create inner transcendent peace, and to live your life with self-realized, self-inquired clarity. If you can reach that height without ever having put your legs behind your head, you’re doing yoga correctly.
Yoga won’t make you skinny. Yoga makes your body look pretty great. It’s about so much more than the body stuff but that’s what everybody asks me when I tell them I practice yoga a lot. I do NOT look like a yogini, all limbs and arms and rippling lean muscle. I’m a soft girl with curves and booty and that’s how I like it. But with yoga it’s about a whole body shift, not just your abs or arms. It’ll help you take care of yourself and your body will become healthy in the process. I’m never going to ever have a six pack without making myself totally miserable, and that’s okay with me. If you’re expecting to do intense yoga and get super skinny you’re delusional. My butt, thighs, back, and lats are the biggest they’ve ever been. Do you see me complaining? …Well, I’d like it if my old skirts and dresses weren’t so tight, but still. An excuse to buy new clothes! Sure, I was tinier a few years ago but now I’m not freezing cold and hungry all the time!
Don’t let your ego out to play. Yoga is incredibly popular right now. While that’s awesome in a lot of respects, at times it can feel like it’s just something people are doing because it’ll make them get a nice ass. And the ‘yoga selfie’ trend that has been sweeping my Facebook and Instagram is quite troubling to me…mostly because it makes my ego start screaming “You can’t do that pose and she’s only been doing yoga for two months!” Unless it’s with correct intention (such as, when Kino MacGregor or Kathryn Budig or Seane Corn do it) taking pictures of yourself doing yoga is just an excuse to take your ego for a joyride, or the egos of those looking at the picture. I used to feel incredibly bad when I saw pictures of my friends pushing themselves into an effortless Mayurasana, peacock pose. But then I started seeing what the whole “the practice isn’t about the poses” thing was all about and that jealousy melted off. My practice is private and it’s about a communion with myself and my spirituality and how I can clear my mind entirely and open my heart fully. It’s not really about the quest to push myself into peacock pose anymore. It’d be nice if I could do it, but it’s not that important. I just now am seeing a full heart opening in my sun salutations and that’s enough for this lifetime. (Also: yoga props are the shizzle. Your ego doesn’t want you to use them. Your body does.)
Yoga will set you free…but first it will piss you off. This is the most important one, and probably the one that will make you run like hell in the other direction. Like I said, when I started out doing yoga I was like a cloud floating out of class. I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced avocados. It feels like when you fall in love for the first time and everything is giddy and dizzy. But then there were the days I would lay in savasana and cry, or swear at myself when I couldn’t get into a pose, or beat myself up in warrior. Then there were the days in which I would emotionally break down during class. I’m talking snotty, hyperventilating meltdowns. That’s when the real love story begins to take shape. That’s when the yoga starts to penetrate your life.
Yoga will expose all of the shitty, horrible things that you do/say/feel on a daily basis and it will make you confront them in order to eradicate them. The yoga sutras refer to these obstacles as samskaras, and in order to get through them, you have to let your inner fire, your tapas, burn them away. The burning is when you lie in bed sobbing hysterically because of what’s going on with our decision to airstrike Syria, or when you think about the kids in the Sandy Hook shooting, or a best friend loses her mother in one of the worst ways imaginable. I was already a highly empathic person before yoga, but it’s like my inner volume was turned up to 11. Yoga tells us to love even when things are horrendous. To forgive the unforgiveable. To listen. To realize that we are all the same, and that the whole “all is love and love everyone and everything and everything happens for a reason” applies to everyone, especially those people or situations you don’t want to love, or when things happen that seem so totally baseless that you wonder what sort of deity could cause that much pain. And that is ridiculously difficult, because it’s so easy to point fingers, to assign blame, to repress/stuff actual feeling, and to only include the ‘all is love’ mantra on the people who like. To actually feel and allow empathy is when you know the practice of yoga is working its way into your life in ways you never thought possible when you were trying to contort yourself into King Dancer that one time in a backbend workshop.
I said a few years ago that I wanted yoga to help me become a better person in all facets of my life. It’s only been in the past year and a half or so that I’ve actually let yoga do that.
Yoga opens you. It shatters you. It lifts you.
Here are some other articles that get my point across in a better way than I ever could:
The Yoga of Darkness
Seane Corn Lecture at Wanderlust. I freaking love Seane Corn and this is the lecture that made me really start looking at my yoga more concretely. I repeat a lot of her phrases when I’m stressed.
Kelly Morris’s Lecture at Wanderlust. This presentation started me on a path to study karma and emptiness more fully and it has truly impacted my life.
lokah samasta sukhino bhavantu. may all beings everywhere be happy and free and may the thoughts and actions of my own life in some way contribute to that happiness and freedom for all. namaste.
PS. October is a highly lucky month for me, but we’ll get to that another time.